Never. Stop. Learning. A sure path to success!

information sign

This post is part one of a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

One of the most important lessons that I have continually returned to in my own life is to never stop learning. In fact, it is the foundation of one of the pillars in my “how to succeed in the workplace” approach that I’ve mentioned before. In short, my experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these you can add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play.

If you’re not growing, you’re standing still – that’s how I think about it. It is my assertion that there is huge benefit from always seeking opportunities to build upon our knowledge and experience we have gained to date. Sometimes we have both the bandwidth and motivation to do this in big ways, while other times we have to be more modest in our approach. But nonetheless, seeking ways to learn, improve, and build skills is always going to pay off as far as I have seen.

Many people know about the concept of 10,000 hours  of “deliberate practice” being required to become world-class in any field. This concept was popularized by the great author and podcaster (please listen to Revisionist History!) Malcolm Gladwell in his very enjoyable and informative book, Outliers: The Story of Success (highly recommended! he narrates the audiobook as well)). I do believe there is merit to this idea – though many have poo-pooed it, but the story doesn’t end there. I’m completely convinced that building breadth is as much, if not more important than focused expertise in your field or pursuit of choice.

Admittedly I wasn’t always so deliberate about this practice of advancing personal breadth, particularly in the workplace. Thankfully, at some point I realized that my jumping around between jobs every couple of years early in my career was absolutely about this! (Though such moves always help with salary and title advancement as well!) In reflection, I realized how much I was growing simply by broadening my exposure . True, all of those early jobs were broadly in the area of molecular biology (my primary field) research and development. However, I went from my position at a biotech start up to an enormous multi-national, tens of billions of dollars in revenue pharmaceutical company. I went from technology development to high throughput process optimization – and back again. I went from a lab position to a desk jockey job in bioinformatics. I went from being an individual contributor to a people leader. Those are just some simple examples of transitions I made. Once I realized that it was building this breadth of experience was the true driver of personal growth, I became much more deliberate in practice. I left my successful career in R&D leadership and went into Product Management, then on to Service and Support, repeated that cycle, and finally concluded in process optimization and continuous improvement. In the last five years of employment, I also left a career built almost entirely around biotech research tools to one in diagnostics – a highly regulated field unlike any other role I had been before. Importantly, with every move I grew: my skills, my knowledge, my network, my ability to succeed in different roles and fields, as well as my understanding of different kinds of people and cultures – truly in every way.

I have always tried to follow the same approach in my non-work life. Sometimes this is in more time-consumptive ways, like taking college coursework to learn a new programming language. Other times it is as small an effort as ensuring I am taking time to read a book about an unfamiliar topic – even if it takes weeks and weeks because everything else is just too busy, or spending time exploring a new hobby. Our lifestyle dictates how much time we have available for these pursuits of course, along with our available energy and our general wherewithal! Anyone who is a parent knows all about this fact, right?

A perfect example of personal development opportunity is writing this little blog. When considering how to kick it off, I knew I was very familiar with sites like Wix and others that are far more “out of the box” / What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) approaches, having used a number of them in the past. However, I also knew that WordPress was one of the most commonly used solutions for personal & small business website development at the present time – though far from the most intuitive. I decided learning WP was probably a great idea, as if not for this blog, doing some website work as a side hustle is one of my (many) ideas for income generation. It wasn’t the simple solution, but I was sure that any struggles that followed would only advance my knowledge and skills.

Aaaaaaaas it turns out, WordPress is far from the most intuitive toolkit out there, even for someone with good computer experience, including web development. So I’ve been kludging around for a couple of days now in between other tasks (Did I mention I’m an early riser? That helps) finding my way around WP. As some of you know, this journey has already led me to move the site from a free WordPress.com blog to a self-hosted WordPress.org site. I learned a lot quickly, unfortunately this included realizing that my idea to start on the former platform wasn’t as prudent as I had initially thought. Let’s just say given how crappy of a process site migration was, I’m really happy I came to this decision now instead of months down the road! Thankfully, the web hosting side was much easier to deal with! I’ve been really happy with BlueHost and their prices are surprisingly low. A nice benefit of them is that your first year domain registration is free of charge.

OK I’ve wandered around a bit here and I think it’s time to wind up. To summarize, I would advocate that we must never stop learning. We all may differ in our innate drive to learn and grow, as well as the “free time” we have available for such pursuits, but the lesson is just as important irrespective of that fact. By being passionate about learning we create more opportunities, understand our world and our possibilities better, uncover many ideas for continuous self-improvement, and hopefully have fun along the way. Life is a balance of course, and work-life and family-life keeps us all incredibly busy! But I assert that any time taken in the pursuit of education – in your work and in your personal life, will pay off in great excess versus the effort spent. What ways have you found lately to advance your own learning? I hope to hear from some of you in the comments!

photo credit: “Information” by heathbrandon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Be not afeard! Embrace change

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This post is part two in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

The Tempest; Act III, Scene II by William Shakespeare

Introduction

When I reflect upon my own career, I find that the times where I learned the most are those in which I took bold steps. By that I mean when opportunities for large changes presented themselves – by my seeking them out or when they just landed in my lap, I elected to accept them. I do not mean to say that one should be hasty and leap at everything presented to you. However, when considering the balance of being risk averse vs. moving ahead with confidence, I have found that erring towards the latter is the most productive and has provided the greatest growth opportunities for me.

My experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play.

Embracing change accelerates your personal growth

I have worked at several start up biotech companies during my career. One of these comes to mind when considering this topic. I was in my fifth year at a mid-sized division of a large multinational corporation considering what my next career step might be. I was successful at this company but felt my pace of growth was slowing. I knew a couple of people at a very stealthy startup just a few miles away, and one made me aware of a job posting. The role was in product management, the same as my current position. I interviewed for that job and after several discussions, I was offered a completely different role at the company! This position would be to build and lead a customer service and support organization – something I had never done before. What to do?

I had good adjacent experience – I knew the field in which the company operated, I had some direct customer interaction from product management, and had handled escalated support cases while in R&D. But for sure, I didn’t know the ins and outs of how to put together and lead this kind of organization. After some consideration, I decided to take the plunge. Why? For starters, I assumed these obviously intelligent and successful people wouldn’t have offered me the job had they not believed me capable. I also knew I would learn a lot doing something I had never done before – experience had taught me this. Additionally, the few people I knew at this small company were confident in the technology (about which I knew nothing until my first day of work!) – so that didn’t seem too risky. Lastly, as my wife reminded me, should this job not work out, there wouldn’t really be a downside. If it didn’t work out I could find a new job when it was time to go. There were other opportunities around and I had about thirteen years of good work experience by that point. So I went for it!

What was the outcome? In short, I learned more in the five years I was at that company than any other role in my career, without question. I took part in growing a company from a small, pre-launch startup to one with hundreds of employees, went through two acquisitions, helped establish and maintain a customer base of thousands, and facilitated a blistering pace of revenue growth. I learned how to build and lead a large global support organization (which came in handy in a future role), and how to be a better people leader. Being part of the company leadership team gave me exposure to numerous mentors from whom I learned a tremendous amount – more on the role of mentors in a future installment in this series! This role also taught me more about dealing with adversity and difficult situations than any other in my career. Importantly, I had the opportunity to work with hundreds of tremendously talented colleagues and customers, growing both my network and my knowledge substantially.

A case for staying put?

Should you always leap at what is put before you? Of course not. Consideration is warranted for any big decisions. If your current role and company is providing you great opportunities for growth and you feel strongly that “seeing it through” for a longer period makes good sense, it may be a great option at present. Balancing opportunity cost is certainly part of the equation when contemplating change. But I would recommend to always be evaluating if that calculus has changed.

On the other hand, I have had numerous colleagues who were unhappy in their role or at their company, and had been so for years. They were talented and well connected, so opportunities came their way. They often had little to no barriers to making a change, which is not always the case. However, they never budged for fear of change, electing to stay with what they knew, warts and all! That sounds like a pretty miserable way to spend the majority of your waking hours, doesn’t it? It is more common than you may realize, in my experience. If you aren’t growing, aren’t happy, and see opportunities to turn that around, I would assert that there is no time like the present to do that! There is also peril in staying put and waiting for “unicorn” jobs, those perfect opportunities that might come along once in a lifetime. As many have said in various ways, “perfect is the enemy of good enough”!

Conclusion

Considering my example, would I have continued to grow had I stayed at my previous company? Almost certainly. I had a good role there, was well regarded, and had opportunities at other parts of the larger corporation. However, I assert that my development was greatly accelerated by the choice I made to leave, setting aside the more comfortable or “safe” path and embracing the big change presented to me. Was it all sunshine and roses? Of course not – but what is in life? We grow the most when we stretch ourselves, and challenging times can provide the greatest catalyst for that growth. In summary, embracing change is a huge enabler of growth and my own experience suggests that if you align yourself with good people, use these opportunities to learn, and work hard, success will follow. What has your own experience been?

photo credit: Change by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

The power of strong mentorship

Mentor and college student talking

This post is part three of a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the others in the series.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

-Isaac Newton (1675)

Introduction

This is a quote I’ve referenced before, and it’s among my favorites – though I am admittedly a Newton buff. (If you don’t know much about Sir Isaac outside of stories about falling apples, James Gleick wrote a great biography that I think you will enjoy). The acceleration in one’s development and career advancement that results from strong and diverse mentorship is one of the pillars in my “how to succeed in the workplace” approach that I’ve introduced previously. In short, my experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play.

Strong mentors are a key driver of your development

One of my favorite pieces of advice regarding knowing when to consider a company or role change is that you should be getting at least as much from your employer as your company is getting from you. For me this is about personal growth and development, and the advancement of skills – not merely the compensation and titles that so many focus on. The former is far more valuable in the end. One key factor I have found that drives this growth is the influence of great mentorship. For me, these mentors have often been direct managers – but do not underestimate the value of peer mentorship as well. What matters is that we learn from the diverse experiences gained by others in their own careers to further our own advancement and ability to contribute. This is the core of the Newton quote!

I was fortunate in that I had several strong mentors right out of college. The first of these was my graduate school advisor, and the second was a manager at my first post-graduate job. When I consider what was consistent between these two leaders, it is that they knew the balance of when to steer me and when to let me stumble around to let me grow by doing – the most powerful learning tool. Each had strong and diverse experience in their field so that the potential for me to learn was great. The key factors that also needed be present were their deliberate mentoring mindset, patience to allow me to grow and not merely tell me what to do, and creation of an atmosphere in which I could succeed without fear of failure. They knew how to leverage my strongest skills!

A specific example comes to mind – after only a few months of working for this manager, an opportunity came up for a leadership role on his ever-growing team. This would mean stepping up to oversee a group of people who had previously been my peers. I knew the laboratory work well, but the opportunity was to learn management, as I had only been an individual contributor before. I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience. My manager seemed to always know the right balance of observing from the background vs. engaging directly with me. The positive atmosphere he fostered also meant I felt comfortable coming to him with questions at anytime – and he was always willing to make time to talk with me. As a result, I learned so much about people and group management in that next year. Having such a positive experience out of the gate definitely served as a jumping off point for a career that would eventually take me to positions where I led organizations of hundreds of people. Consider the alternative scenario – I am put into a role wholly new to me, and I receive little to no guidance. I struggle with the very first conflicts I encounter and I have a terrible experience, and then stay away from management for years to come. Vastly different outcomes, right?

How do you find good mentors? The interview process is one path. Really try to understand if your future manager is one from whom you can learn. Leverage your network if you can and find out what it’s like to work with that person. If you’re at a company you like but aren’t getting the mentorship you need, consider a role in another group with a stronger leader from whom you can learn. Aligning yourself with strong mentors is essential for growth, and it’s worth the effort it may take to find them.

Mentorship doesn’t only come from your manager

Not all managers are created equally when it comes to the potential to be a strong mentor. In addition, you might be seeking growth in an area that is not a core competency of your direct supervisor. This is where peer mentorship comes into play. A peer mentor doesn’t necessarily need be at a similar level in your company – they can still be a superior outside of your own management line. The point is that you can ask someone to be a career mentor for you. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn’t even know this was a possibility until I was more than halfway through my own career. You may be surprised how willing many people are to serve in this kind of role, meeting with you once a month to provide career coaching. You can even write this into your development plan. All of us benefit from the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone, learning from their experience. Peer coaching can be a very safe way to get that guidance without any concern about looking inexperienced (or needy!) to your direct manager.

A request – please do consider if there is an opportunity for you to mentor others. They may not come to you and request this of you. But do consider if this is something appropriate to offer up to a junior colleague who shows potential, and with whom you enjoy working. You may end up having immeasurable positive impact on their career, and of course you will grow through this process as well. And who knows? Maybe some day you’ll end up working for them! ?

Further reading

A few recommendations to share: First, I absolutely recommend “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris. Particularly if you aren’t familiar with Tim’s podcast, this is a convenient way to get the collected wisdom of a very diverse group of world-class performers, most at the very top of their field. Not all the interviewees were of the same interest level to me, but with more than 200 of them, you’ll surely find many who resonate with you!

Second, my very favorite book about how to lead and coach development – one that taught me more about how to be a mentor than anything else: “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Pat Lencioni. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Pat speak and it was very impactful for me. This book, and the workshop it teaches you to run, can transform how you manage people and take you from “boss” to “leader” quicker than you would imagine. It’s an easy read, using a simple workplace fable as a backdrop to lay down the principles of Pat’s method. This is the only management book I have re-read many times, and there are other tools and books available to support this method.

Finally a bonus recommendation: harkening back to the quote, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” by Stephen Hawking is a fabulous collection for the science-minded. This book represents a look at the discoveries that altered our perception of the world via a compilation of seven classic works on physics and astronomy. His choice of landmark works by some of the world’s great thinkers – including Newton and Einstein, traces the evolution of science and shows how each figure built upon the genius of those who came before them. I really enjoyed it.

photo credit: “Mustang Mentoring 2011” by bujiie is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0